NEW ORLEANS — The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) unanimously reauthorized the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty for a second three-year term Wednesday, the first day of its annual spring meeting in New Orleans.

During the brief time set aside for a debate and vote to settle the future of the high-profile committee — which is closely identified with the bishops’ vigorous opposition to the federal Health and Human Services’ mandate — conference members signaled both their support and their awareness that the challenges to religious liberty would likely increase during a period of seismic political and cultural change.

Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle, in his capacity as the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Priorities and Plans, suggested that the problems the committee was created to address have not only “persisted, but even intensified.” Shutting down the committee now, he said, would “send a bad message.”

Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., reported that the committee’s public statements, and curriculum materials that are designed to provide a framework for catechetical instruction on religious liberty, had inspired a surge of activity on the issue in his diocese. Other bishops emphasized the need to add funding and staff to bolster the committee’s impact.

In the week leading up to the vote that would decide the fate of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, there was a flurry of sometimes conflicting advice about the best path forward. Some commentators urged conference members to step up their efforts, others raised questions about the impact of the committee’s outreach to people in the pews, and some critics argued that the bishops had overstated the threat that the mandate posed to Catholic institutions and individual believers.

George Weigel, the papal biographer and a leading Catholic public intellectual, endorsed the committee’s mission and dismissed any suggestion that the bishops should retreat from a robust, highly focused defense of religious liberty.

“Anyone who says the threat to religious freedom has been exaggerated is either ignorant or deluded,” Weigel told the Register.

Michael Gorman, an associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, echoed Weigel’s view about the need for a muscular response to recent free-exercise challenges.

“Some critics seem to hold that the bishops have overplayed their hand, but this isn’t a poker game,” Gorman told the Register.

“Of course, the bishops would be glad to change the government’s position, but their primary goal is to teach us how to think and act in these circumstances. The point is to stay true to Christ’s teachings, even if that means persecution.”

Alan Sears, the president and CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest group that litigates free-exercise cases, went further, arguing that the USCCB should intensify its outreach and sharpen its strategy for engaging Church leaders, pastors and ordinary Catholics.

“We are very pleased with what the bishops have done so far. But there is much more they could do,” said Sears, a Catholic, who added that most of the laity were unaware of the USCCB’s work on this issue.


The History of the Committee

The U.S. bishops established the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty in September 2011, as then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the USCCB president, warned of a disturbing new pattern of threats to religious freedom at the state and federal level.

Among other issues, Archbishop Dolan noted an interim federal rule, authorized under the Affordable Care Act, that required most private employers to provide co-pay-free contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health plans.

The establishment of the committee, with then-Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., at the helm, marked a tense new chapter in the conference’s engagement with the federal government and the bishops’ growing awareness that both the institutional integrity and long-term survival of Catholic nonprofits could be at risk.

In 2012, Bishop Lori argued in congressional hearings that the HHS mandate posed an unprecedented challenge to the free exercise of Catholic institutions, and he marshaled a team of advisers to develop legal and legislative strategies for exempting religious employers from complying with the federal law.  The committee also developed a pastoral statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” to be used as the foundation for school curricula on religious liberty, and the first annual “Fortnight for Freedom” was conducted in June 2012 to educate ordinary Catholics and raise the profile of free-exercise issues at the diocesan and parish level.

In “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops’ committee asserted, “Religious institutions should not be disqualified from a government contract based on religious belief, and they do not somehow lose their religious identity or liberty upon entering such contracts.” The document also warned that the HHS mandate would “force religious institutions to facilitate and fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching.”


Significant Achievements

Two years have passed since the committee issued that warning, and Archbishop Lori of Baltimore can point to significant achievements, especially as legal challenges filed by for-profit and nonprofit plaintiffs move through the courts.

By the end of June, Hobby Lobby, the craft-store chain, will learn whether the U.S. Supreme Court will exempt it from compliance with the mandate. Further, a total of 35 for-profit and 22 nonprofit plaintiffs have obtained temporary relief from the courts, based on the merits of their claim that the federal law violates their free-exercise rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

During a recent interview with the Register, Archbishop Lori predicted that the justices would likely issue a narrow ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, and so religious nonprofits would have to wait, probably until June 2015, before the court would decide the merits of a lawsuit filed by a nonprofit plaintiff.

Gerard Bradley, an expert on religious freedom at the University of Notre Dame Law School, suggested that the USCCB committee would be grappling with a host of free-exercise issues in the years ahead.

The committee will need “to coordinate and strategize about preserving Catholics and Catholic ministries from (as the relevant laws say) being made to do what one cannot do or being prohibited from doing what one must do,” Bradley told the Register. 

The bishops’ committee, however, has failed to secure legislation that would protect conscience rights for religious nonprofits and individual employers. The deeply polarized politics of Capitol Hill have stalled that vital mission, and the committee’s work has been further complicated by a largely effective partisan effort to characterize free-exercise concerns as a “war on women” and, more recently, as an unlawful pretext for the denial of services to same-sex couples.


Working to Raise Awareness

Archbishop Lori has also struggled to establish a beachhead for religious liberty at the diocesan and parish level. A reported 130 dioceses will participate in the 2014 "Fortnight for Freedom," scheduled from June 21-July 4, but many supporters of the committee’s work have complained that the fortnight and other opportunities to raise awareness have been widely ignored.

“I travel, and I speak to lots of people in different dioceses,” explained Sears, who said flatly, “The message to the laity has not been received. The average person is still not fully aware of what the bishops have done.”

Pia de Solenni, a Seattle-based moral theologian who addresses policy matters, told the Register that, in her experience, the majority of Catholics still do not understand the nature of emerging threats to religious freedom. She argued that the USCCB committee should reframe the HHS mandate and other free-exercise issues as a threat to conscience rights.

“From a communications standpoint, whenever you say, ‘religious freedom,’ people don’t think there is an issue,” said de Solenni.

“But when you approach it as a matter of conscience, people get it.”

Archbishop Lori addressed this concern in comments to journalists following the vote to reauthorize the committee for a second three-year term.

“For so many years, religious liberty didn’t seem to be under challenge, at least to most people, and so I think people more or less take it for granted,” he said. “And in as much as they go to church on Sunday and churches are open and things appear to be as they always have been on the surface, it is easy to understand why a lot of people might not think there are challenges to religious liberty.”


The Freedom to Serve

Archbishop Lori believes the Church in the United States is only beginning to grapple with a powerful movement that would reduce the first freedom to the freedom to worship, and thus sharply constrain the practice of faith in the public square, whether that involves Catholics’ imperative to serve the needy, as Pope Francis has highlighted since his election, or to speak out on life and marriage issues.

“From the beginning of the ad hoc committee, really right from the moment that the conference decided to make religious freedom one of its priorities, I think the challenges did not focus on the freedom to worship,” he said. “It’s really when we step outside of the walls of the Church that the challenges come.”

“However, Pope Francis put this in sharp relief for us in the short time he has been our Holy Father, and it seemed an ideal time to adopt the theme for this year’s Fortnight for Freedom, ‘The Freedom to Serve,’” he said. “It is precisely what is hanging in the balance.

“We are not looking for special prerogatives for the Church; we are not looking for special treatment. We are simply looking for our constitutionally guaranteed freedom to be able to serve the common good by conducting our ministries in accord with our religious conviction and not to have any agency, be it governmental or otherwise, to try to sever off service to the common good and the poor and the vulnerable, from proclaiming the word and worshipping.”


The HHS Mandate’s Threat

But for the moment, the USCCB committee will be identified primarily with the bishops’ struggle to address the threat posed by the HHS mandate.

CUA’s Michael Gorman suggested in a June 5 column in First Things that the most difficult hurdle ahead for the committee will come if and when the Supreme Court issues a ruling that denies Catholic nonprofits a reprieve from the mandate.

Said Gorman: “If, after the bishops have claimed that conforming to the mandate would involve acting against Church teachings, Catholics then conformed, we would be sending a very clear message to the present administration and to future administrations as well: When we say that something is against our teachings, it doesn’t mean that we won’t do it — all it means is that someone has to threaten us first.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.